How do you donate your body to science?

May 26, 2006

Dear Cecil:

My aunt recently died. When I asked about the funeral details, I was told that there would be no graveside service because my aunt had donated her body to science. Nobody seemed to know much more, so I turn to you. How do you donate your body to science? Who wants it and what do they do with it? When whoever got your body is done with it, how do they dispose of it?

Good for your aunt, and for anybody else who agrees to become a body or organ donor. (I confess I signed the organ-donor form on the back of my driver's license only recently--just never got around to it before.) Body donation is vital to medical training and research, and it's not like you'll have any further use for the old hat rack once you ship out. That said, donation isn't a pretty business and abuses do occur, so you may as well know the facts before you decide.

Most donated bodies go to medical schools. The how-to is pretty straightforward. Googling "willed body program" plus your state or poking around the Web site of your favorite med school will turn up detailed information and often a donor form. The institution may send you a wallet card to notify authorities of its claim at the time of death. Be sure to discuss the matter with your family and doctor so they'll know what to do (and won't freak) when the time comes.

What do med schools do with cadavers? Pretty much what you'd expect--dissection, surgery practice, etc--but a few details might not have occurred to you. Those of weak stomach may want to fast-forward through the following, mainly gleaned from Mary Roach's Stiff (2003) and Kenneth Iserson's Death to Dust (1994):

  • Bodies may be split up, with the head sent to students learning brain surgery or nose jobs while the legs are packed off to students learning knee surgery.
  • At the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, researchers in criminal forensics expose cadavers to various environments and observe how they rot.
  • Cadaver research in automobile crash tests contributed to the development and testing of such devices as lap-shoulder belts, air bags, dashboard padding, and safer windshields. Most current crash-testing uses dummies, but some experts question whether the dummies accurately reproduce the damage done to a real human head, for instance.
  • Corpses are used to test military equipment such as body armor. Testing footwear designed to protect against land mines has been controversial--apparently some people are offended that a body donated to science would be blown up rather than patiently sliced into tiny pieces.
  • Medical-instrument firms find corpses helpful for instructing doctors in the use of new devices or procedures; the training process involves learning from mistakes, which works out better when the subject is already dead. Artificial joints are often tested on cadavers; meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies pick up the odd gland for hormone extraction and the like.
  • Then there's the occasional special project. Surely few will forget Gunther von Hagens's Body Worlds, in which the human cadaver is repurposed as bizarro educational display. Straight Dope readers may also remember Pierre Barbet, the French surgeon who researched crucifixion techniques by nailing up amputated arms in various ways (through the wrist, through the palm, etc) to see whether the nails could support a person's weight.

Most schools don't allow you to donate your body for a specific purpose--you give them the body and they decide how to use it. The school can refuse to take a body, depending on condition, e.g., extensive burns or obesity; cause of death, such as infectious disease; or other factors such as autopsy or amputation spoiling the body for dissection purposes. After use (usually two to three years following donation), the remains are typically cremated. You can usually request that the ashes be returned to your family; otherwise, they may be buried in a university plot (sometimes in a common grave), generally at an annual commemoration ceremony.

The prototype legislation governing body and organ donation in the U.S. is the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, but details vary from state to state. While payment for body parts intended for transplantation or therapy is illegal, "processing fees" are permitted, and body-part trafficking for research and education is largely unregulated. This has led to some abuse: the head of the willed-body program at the University of California, Irvine was fired in 1999 for allegedly selling spines on the black market, and the director of UCLA's program was arrested on similar charges in 2004. In a recent exposé, USA Today claimed there was a "lucrative, underground business driven by growing demand for human bones and tissue"--you'll recall that an unscrupulous embalmer pilfered the bones of Alistair Cooke. I suspect more stringent regulation, no doubt accompanied by bar codes and parts tracking, isn't far down the road.

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